Review: Putting a face on the Kremlin’s autocrat

March 23, 2012

By Pierre Briançon
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Twelve years after Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin first became president of Russia, we know as little about him as when Boris Yeltsin pulled him from bureaucratic anonymity to make him his last prime minister and successor. And Russians themselves still don’t know: witness both the bizarre popular support he enjoys in parts of the country, and the contemptuous hostility in which he is held by the swelling ranks of his opponents. Is he a Soviet throwback or a Russian moderniser? A statesman or a crook? A closet reformist or a ruthless despot?

Masha Gessen doesn’t equivocate and tells us clearly what she thinks of the man who has just become president of Russia for the third time, in an election he probably didn’t need to rig but rigged anyway. Her book, The Man Without A Face, was originally subtitled “The Rise and Crimes of Vladimir Putin”. This was changed to the less inflammatory “The Unlikely Rise of…”, but one gets the idea.

How a third-tier KGB spook – of the paper-pushing type, not the flashy model – could become in less than 10 years the feared autocrat of the largest country in the world is one of the biggest mysteries of the world’s post-communist history. Gessen, a Russian-American reporter who has lived and worked in Moscow for the better part of 20 years, throws unforgiving light on the official version of the Putin story, which is replete with omissions and lies.

There’s no denying the quality of the investigations she has conducted on a man who has done everything to avoid such scrutiny. Gessen has looked in detail at the tricks and manipulations that allowed him to become a “democratically” elected leader back in 2000 – if, that is, the word democracy can apply to a context where Russians voted for someone they didn’t know to do something they didn’t plan.

The author at times seems to give too much credence to one or other of the multiple conspiracy theories that purport to make sense of events that might otherwise remain incomprehensible. Her narrative is powerful and she takes no prisoners. And it’s useful to remember that though Putin could have committed one or the other of the “crimes” he is accused of, it doesn’t mean he actually did. But the book is straightforward about the knowns and unknowns, and draws clear lines between facts and authorial speculation.

She does speculate, not hiding the fact that in the two decades she has worked in Moscow, she has become a militant opponent of the Kremlin strongman. But why should she affect neutrality over a leader who unleashed his army’s worst violence on Chechnya, hunted down or imprisoned the few oligarchs who dared resist him, let reporters’ assassins run free, confiscated power, silenced the courts and made his cronies and friends Russia’s new billionaires? Isn’t it precisely that militant anger that gave Gessen the energy to deconstruct the resistible rise of the small-time spy?

The world will have to wait a few years for the balanced, detached book about Putin. It will then hopefully be enriched by the flow of revelations to come in the wake of Russia’s democratisation. In the meantime Gessen’s dogged reporting and stout intellect makes her an emblematic figure for those who used to be called, not so long ago, dissidents. To that long tradition of Russia’s history belongs her superb answer to an interviewer who was recently inquiring whether she feared living in Moscow with her family, and whether she’d ever considered leaving. Russia is my home, she replied. “And if Putin doesn’t like me, he can leave.”

 

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